If you’re on an even keel, you’re stable and balanced. You’re functioning normally. (That’s not such an easy trick during the holidays.)
But what’s a keel? And why should it be even?
Like so many English idioms, this phrase comes from the language of sailors.
A keel is a long timber that runs along the bottom of a boat. It stretches from the stem (the boat’s front) all the way to the stern (the back).
The keel is sometimes called the “spine” of a boat. Wooden ribs curve up around it, with wooden planks nailed on to them to form the boat’s hull, or sides.
Once you know what a keel is, you can imagine why you’d want it to stay even. Heavy winds and rough water can tilt a boat sideways, putting it on an uneven keel.
Nathaniel Philbrick writes about this in his book In the Heart of the Sea:
When a ship is heeled over [that is, tilted over] by forty-five degrees or more, her hull might be compared to a fat man on the short end of a lopsided seesaw. No matter how much he weighs, if the end of the seesaw on the other side of the pivot point is long enough, it becomes a lever that will eventually lift him up into the air as the distant tip of the seesaw settles softly to the ground.
And when the hull of a boat lifts far enough into the air, it capsizes.
Same with you and me. If we’re pressed sideways with too much stress, we can fall over. Fall apart. To combat this, we try for balance.
We try to stay on an even keel.
So that’s your tidbit for today. On an even keel means stable and balanced and functioning normally.